Ottawa starts a department to fight poverty in our hard-up regions. Let’s hope it doesn’t have to fight existing federal agencies— and the provinces, too
Ottawa starts a department to fight poverty in our hard-up regions. Let’s hope it doesn’t have to fight existing federal agenciesand the provinces, too
ANY DAY NOW a new department of government will formally appear on the federal scene — called DREG or DRED or maybe even DREE. I favor DREE myself since “Department of Regional Economic Expansion” has more thrust to it than either “Department of Regional Economic Growth” or even “Department of Regional Economic Development.” And thrust is certainly what’s going to be needed.
Not that past efforts to do something about regional disparities in this country have been a total waste of time and money. The fiscal-equalization measures that have been with us since World War II, while not getting at the causes of regional disparities, have at least helped prevent the gaps from becoming ever wider. And the activities of such agencies as the Atlantic Development Board and the Area Development Agency, and such programs as ARDA and the Fund For Rural Economic Development, have undoubtedly done some good.
But the fact remains that certain parts of the country — the Atlantic Provinces, eastern Quebec, parts of Manitoba, the north — continue to have much higher unemployment rates and substantially lower incomes than exist elsewhere in Canada. The ques-
tion is whether a new department can do anything more to remedy the situation than has been done in the past.
Much depends, of course, on how the new department views its role —whether it sees itself as simply a coordinating body, integrating all existing programs and agencies concerned with regional economic development, or whether in addition to this it sees itself as an instigating body, devising comprehensive plans and activities for the total restructuring of the depressed areas of the country.
Some evidence already exists that it sees itself playing the larger role. Jean Marchand, the minister who will be responsible for the new department, made a speech on regional policy a few months ago. After commenting on the desirability of co-ordinating action for regional development through a single department of government, he said:
“But there is much more to our objectives ... I am aiming at a fundamental change, a change of the greatest significance for the Atlantic region especially . . .
“There is no doubt where the driving force for large economic growth in the Atlantic region has to be found. We have to develop industries that can sell a lot more to the rest of Canada or to the world outside. If we can do that, growth for the local market will follow. But the push has to come through selling outside . . .
“[This] may call for many new things: for a multi-million-dollar deepwater terminal; for faster highway links to central Canada and to New England; for cheaper power, perhaps tidal power; in brief, for many kinds of large-scale investment, public and private. Above all, it calls for adequate incentives to the right kinds of industry in the right ways at the right places. “Those are the engines of progress that we will be trying to get in motion ...”
Not being an economist, I cannot say whether backing export industries, and the infrastructure necessary to them, is the best way of developing the Atlantic Provinces or other depressed areas. (Even the economists,
I understand, have difficulty agreeing on the determinants of economic growth.) But whatever the merits or demerits of such plans for regional economic expansion, there is no denying the new department’s hope of making fundamental changes in the economic structures of the poorer regions of the country.
The question then becomes whether it will be able to surmount all the roadblocks that will be strewn in its path. It will probably have little difficulty getting the co-operation of the
concerned areas, particularly where they constitute entire provinces. (Even here, though, protests will be heard from declining towns and villages that are expected to continue to decline in favor of more dynamic sectors in their region.) But what about the co-operation of such provinces as Quebec that are only partially affected and have regional - development plans of their own? How much federal leadership will they be willing to accept?
And what will the new department do if rich provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, choose, by competitive bidding for industry, say, to hamper its efforts to steer development to the area where the unemployed and underemployed people are? Will the new department simply bid higher? Or will it become directly involved in the rich provinces’ growth patterns, too? (I have a marvelous vision of peach trees returning to the Niagara Peninsula.) Is such involvement really possible, practically speaking? If not, what is the answer to strong provinces acting independently?
What, for that matter, is the answer to other departments and agencies of the federal government pursuing their own ways, oblivious of regional needs? Will the new department be able to persuade them to look at their policies in terms of their area significance? Will it be able to influence where Public Works builds wharfs? Where the Industrial Development Bank grants loans? Where manpower retraining is focused? Where Transport puts new airports? Where CMHC helps urban development? Where the Defense Department closes bases and where it doesn’t? If national policies generally work against or neutralize regional economic expansion, the whole effort will be lost.
Which brings us to the final point. Will the new department get the political backing it needs? Few members of the present cabinet and governing party come from the regions we’ve been talking about. Their concerns, quite naturally, are with the existing urban complexes that most of them represent. Can they become really interested in the problems of underdeveloped areas? If they become interested, can they be kept interested?
The new department and minister are not going to have an easy time of it. They do have one strong ally, however — the prime minister. Not once but many times, the prime minister has said that if the underdeveloped areas are not helped to become areas of economic growth, “then the unity of the country is almost as surely destroyed as it would be by the French-English confrontation.” That’s pretty strong support. □
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